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Penn State Women’s Volleyball Opens NCAA Tournament In Unfamiliar Territory

For the first time in decades, Penn State women’s volleyball is preparing to open the NCAA Tournament away from Rec Hall.

At 4 p.m. on Friday, December 3, the Nittany Lions will open the bracket with a matchup against Towson at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center. The game will mark the first time Penn State has opened an NCAA Tournament on the road since the bracket expanded to include 64 teams in 1998.

Without a tournament-opening home-court advantage for the first time in decades, head coach Russ Rose says his team is simply focusing on the challenge at hand.

“I think not hosting was based on some losses that we had that impacted our [Rating Percentage Index]. That’s the nature of how the tournament is seeded,” Rose said on Tuesday. “RPI has a great deal of impact on that, and winning and losing is going to always be your No. 1 factor when you’re looking at things. We weren’t going to be hosting all of the matches in State College. It’s been a long time since we didn’t play at home on the first weekend, but it’s always how you play, not necessarily who you play and where you play.”

The Nittany Lions arrived in Pittsburgh on Wednesday to practice in their new venue for the weekend before any play began. Senior setter Gabby Blossom says the close-by setting, although not ideal, has worked in Penn State’s favor.

“It’s definitely different not hosting and being on the road, but that isn’t necessarily our decision…I think we’re lucky that it’s a bus trip, so it’s not a super long, hard travel day,” Blossom said. “I think we’re also lucky we get to stay in Pennsylvania, so hopefully, we have some really good fans. Pitt will obviously have really great fans, because they really support volleyball and they’ve had a great season.”

A few key losses, including blown leads and overmatched contests, ultimately sank Penn State’s hopes of hosting a tournament-opening regional or earning a national seed. Penn State finished the regular season 20-10 — a decidedly “good” resume in the grand scheme of things — but struggled to maintain consistency in conference play. The Nittany Lions completed impressive wins over then-No. 3 Ohio State and then-No. 12 Minnesota but wound up going 13-7 against Big Ten foes.

Heading into the tournament, Rose hopes to iron out his team’s kinks and find some consistency.

“We’ve had flashes where we’ve looked really good and flashes where people get tentative. Certainly, for the 10 weeks we were in conference play, when you’re tentative in the Big Ten, you find yourself in a lot of trouble,” Rose said. “I think the players know the importance of working to try and get some consistency. They should get excited because it’s the NCAA Tournament. There are only 64 teams that are still playing. Everybody has an opportunity to put their regular season behind and get ready to go out and do the best they can.”

Penn State should be able to find strong production from senior stars like right-side hitter Jonni Parker and middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord, who both earned first-team All-Big Ten honors this week. The two respectively lead the Nittany Lions with 418 and 325 kills, while Hord has racked up a career-best 153 total blocks this season.

Parker and Hord can’t carry the load alone, though. Rose says his team will call upon other outside hitters like Adanna Rollins and Erika Pritchard — who Penn State recruited from Minnesota and Maryland, respectively — to make a difference in the postseason.

“Nobody wins in the tournament without having good production from your outsides. Everybody is going to have to have good performances,” Rose said. “Certainly, Jonni has been the most consistent of the outside hitters throughout the year, but you need production from all three of the people who are on the floor, as well as a good presence in the middle.”

Penn State is no stranger to a postseason matchup with the Towson Tigers, who boast a 26-4 overall record after claiming the Colonial Athletic Association’s regular-season and tournament titles. In 2019, the Nittany Lions defeated Towson 3-1 in the tournament’s second round when the Tigers visited Rec Hall.

Regardless of its opponent, Penn State is 22-0 in first-round NCAA Tournament matches since the bracket expanded to 64 teams back in 1998. That alone should give the Nittany Lions confidence as they work to gain their bearings in Pittsburgh.

Should Penn State win, it’ll face the winner of UMBC and No. 3 Pitt. In all likelihood, the Nittany Lions will wind up facing the Panthers and former Penn State star Serena Gray. Still, that challenge isn’t necessarily daunting to this year’s team.

“One of the biggest advantages of playing in the Big Ten is we’re in front of huge crowds against top-10 opponents,” Blossom said while explaining the advice she’s got for her teammates. “You’re kind of used to the pressure of what big-time volleyball is like, so it’s just reassuring. To think we’re already at the NCAA Tournament, the season just goes by so fast. Just enjoy the moment, be present, and be excited about it, because for so many of us, the NCAA Tournament is what you dream of as a little kid. Being able to live out that dream is just really special.”

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

By day, Matt is a senior majoring in journalism. By night, he's Onward State's managing editor. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football lover, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza and "Arrested Development" quotes. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ if you hate yourself or email Matt at [email protected] if you hate him.

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